I think jokes are important especially jokes in comics, and whoever decided to name comics ‘comics’ agrees with me. The word is a double-barrelled derivative with roots in Latin (comicus) and Greek (komikus). In both languages it means the same thing; the opposite of tragedy, something deliberately aimed at causing mirth etc. As all words do, the term evolved and from the 1880s ‘comic’ was used to refer more specifically to humorous media including books with captioned illustrations. From here it was a minor leap to intentionally funny newspaper strips that used both words and images. The rest is history.
At the moment however (unless they are for children) comics with explicit jokes do not seem to be de rigueur. I am puzzled by this, but whatever. (Because I am turning over a new blog leaf, instead of mining the ‘anti-joke’ seam I’m going to focus on the ‘pro-joke’ lode. Yes it hurts a little but overcoming an addiction always does).
I think humour rules and so I try to make my comics funny. Some people (including me) think I succeed. Some don’t. In the context of this post individual reactions are irrelevant. It’s about why I think jokes are important and how I construct them. Though ‘construct’ is not really the right word. To be honest my jokes are all instinct. When I make them I do not really think about it, they just somehow appear. Maybe it is a cellular thing.
Also I am not sure that deconstructing humour is good or necessary and it is clearly unfunny. Jokes are valid in and of themselves and do not require explanations. Maybe attempting to give one will spoil the magic. But I am a policy analyst as well as a cartoonist and policy analysts gonna analyse. And in doing so I see that in my comics are a bunch of pretty consistent techniques, themes and attitudes.
Firstly I want to make people laugh. It’s good for me and it’s good for them. If I do it right and whoever’s reading the comic feels happy, then I feel happy. And feeling happy - even for just a second - is a lovely thing. Once I received a message from a woman who, the night before, had been with her son in intensive care. He had tried (again) to hurt himself. She told me that while they were waiting for a doctor they read my comic Episodes from my Episode and that it made her son laugh and that this was important. My chest lurched and I burst into tears. I felt humbled and proud and overwhelmed. I had made two people happy for a little while and at a time they really needed to feel happy. It was a tiny moment but it was massive.
Episodes from my Episode embodies another common theme – turning trauma into humour. These two comics are about having bipolar which is an undeniably difficult and painful thing to have. But it is also ridiculous, and if I focus on the ridiculous it helps to process and resolve the suffering. Life is funny if you let it be.
Transgression is another thing I do and again it is apparent in my bipolar comics. Mental illness remains for most people (at least in my experience) soooo grave, soooo secretive, soooo worrying and soooo scary. One of the positive side-effects of bipolar though is a licence to talk about it in ways that normal (pfft) people probably can’t. I take full advantage of this. Having the condition means readers without mental illness feel ‘allowed’ to laugh albeit with the simultaneous experience of discomfort about the levity. Readers with mental illness usually just find these comics funny (as described above). Either reaction is satisfying.
Comedy is often about not holding back, going places others will not venture. Where transgression relates to content that ignores or exploits social taboos (e.g. mental illness) shock relates to the fact that I have dared to do so. The comic below is often considered ‘shocking’ (I have evidence). This is because, a) I use the word ‘cunt’ – still considered by many to be the WORST WORD OF ALL; and b) I draw my cunt with a pencil shoved up it. I am describing and showing the world my lady parts in the most awkward of circumstance! I am cheeky.
This strip also illustrates my staunch belief that in truly great comics text and image are inextricably entwined. That you have to have both in order to make sense and for a joke to be effective. How it works in this strip is –
1. The character (alright, yes it’s me) wonders whether it is her gender affecting the perception of her comics by (some) others.
2. The character alternately wonders if her incompetent aesthetic is the cause of the derision.
3. She decides it’s both.
4. Is the punchline, a picture of the character with a pencil up her cunt, drawing. The panel shows ‘both’, the combination of gender and incompetence via a horrific and hilarious illustration (well, it was horrific and hilarious to draw).
Without those preceding it the last panel would simply be a puzzling and slightly dirty picture. Similarly if the last panel was missing the comic would be insipid and pointless. The joke requires words and images from all of the panels.
This cunt comic also contains self-deprecation, another thing I often do. I am not afraid to make fun of myself nor the ways in which others might perceive me. Here I do not deny that I my work is not everyone’s cup of tea and I happily describe it as incompetent.
I do not consider self-deprecation to be the same as self-loathing. In my comics self-deprecation is joyous and powerful. It is the owning of individual vulnerability and silliness. It signifies a lack of defensiveness and undercuts those situations with the potential to make you feel stink. It also contrasts with moments of explicit strength and delight, making them feel even more so. It is designed to help the readers feel happy. The final panel in this strip is all of these things; the character is half-naked and therefore vulnerable. She has a pencil in her vagina and is therefore silly. But she is defiant and laughing in regard to both. She gives no fucks and hopes to make the audience smile.
My self-deprecation also reveals itself in my willingness to do ‘dumb’ humour, to utilize really obvious punchlines that aren’t clever or shocking and where the reader groans as much as they chuckle (probably more). Through this I admit my base silliness and laziness. But obviously because I release these comics into the world I feel fine about it.
While all of the above is interesting, you do not need to know any of it in order to laugh at my comics. In fact it is probably better if you don’t. To laugh is a dynamite and magical thing and that is more than enough.